By Dr Natalie Masento

Dr. Natalie Masento is a Postdoctoral Research Fellow in researching the psychology of food nutrition and health at The University of Reading. In July 2019, she undertook a BSA Media Fellowship with the Jeremy Vine Show at BBC Radio 2 sponsored by The Nutrition Society.

Food is central to all of us, not only for sustaining life, but also for socialising and showing our love for others.

Food is often something we take for granted, with the abundance of supermarkets, restaurants, cafés, food vans that fill our high streets, towns and work places. In reality, it's not something that everyone has access to. Food poverty and the use of food banks has drastically increased in the last few years, with an estimated 10% of the UK population struggling to buy food.

The Cook Together, Eat Together pop up at this year’s British Science Festival was an inspiring example of the power of food to bring people together. Luke, one of the coordinators of the activity, said “it’s an initiative in Coventry that's designed to tackle social isolation for anyone over the age of 55 years old.”

Tony, a regular attendee of the events, explained “it’s a six week cooking club held at Coventry library. I’m now on my second course. I could already cook, but I come mainly for the social element.” Tony shared that spending time cooking with new people helped develop new friendships. “I met Alan on the course, he’s 89 years old, we now go for walks on the weekend or cook dinner together, we had lamb chops the other day.”

             Cook Together, Eat Together, British Science Festival 2019 

The initiative supported by various sources, including the National Lottery Fund, has encouraged people to get out of the house away from social isolation and improved their engagement with cooking and the community. James, the lead co-ordinator said “we wanted to ensure this project had legacy so that after the six weeks people didn’t just go back to isolation. We offer those that complete a six-week course to train and become a co-ordinator themselves. It’s a great way for people to keep having a reason to get involved.”

Kath, another regular attendee, has just finished her cooking course and is now training to become a course coordinator herself. She said “it was a nice way to meet people and although I can cook, it was nice to learn new recipes. I’ve enjoyed it so much that I’m staying on to volunteer and run my own courses.”

On Wednesday evening at the British Science Festival, within the dramatic setting of Coventry Cathedral, three speakers - chef and author Jack Monroe, Lecturer Dr Caroline Moraes and Coventry café owner Christine Eade - spoke about their experience and proposed action in tackling food poverty. The session was chaired by Ivvet Modinou, Festival Director of the British Science Festival.

Unfortunately, food poverty or food insecurity is common for many. Dr Caroline Moraes, a Senior Lecturer at the University of Birmingham, shared the wide scale extent of the issue. She comments that "food insecurity in the UK has never been higher, 14.2 million people are living in poverty. This is not just people who live on benefits, this is people in work who can’t afford food, those that are not receiving a living wage.” Echoing the sentiment of Jack Monroe, Dr Moraes also talked about the emotional impact for those suffering. “People who can’t afford food feel shame and stigma, and unfortunately this prevents people from getting the help they need.”

One of Jack Monroe's cookbooks

For people that are in food poverty, local organisations such as Christine Eade’s The Pod Café and Food Union provide a beacon of support. Reflecting on the vital function of these organisations, Christine says “for some we were their only meal for the day.” The award-winning Pod Café is marginally self-sufficient, using much of the vegetables that are grown in the local allotments and the central Coventry market. Christine’s project, Food Union, allows volunteers to support local allotments, maximising the “growing skills and growing history in the city.” For Christine, her efforts on tackling food poverty are about “using the universal language of food. We all need to eat, we all worry about how much we do or don’t eat. It creates conversations.”

The work carried out in Coventry highlights the value food has in bringing community together. Summarising why the work of The Pod Café and Food Union is so vital, Christine said “we use food to create a rich and nourishing environment for connecting with the city and its people.”

Jack Monroe, known for sharing recipes that are not complicated or expensive, says “I teach people how to eat… I try to write in a really clear, accessible way. The first time I picked up a cookbook I didn’t know what the word saute meant. I still don’t know how to say it because I didn’t learn French either. But it just means to slowly gently cook and stir a bit. So, I write in my recipes slowly, gently stir a bit.”

Jack is also very vocal about her past experiences struggling to feed her family with only £10 per week, yet it was her creativity and tenacity to cook meals with a limited budget that got her through the difficult times, and made her compelled to share her experiences. With this unique perspective Jack has become an advocate for those struggling with food poverty and works to support those in the same situation in the hope that no one should have to face the same “traumatic experience” she did.

The Cook Together, Eat Together initiative, like Christine Eade’s The Pod Café in Coventry, highlights the importance of food within society. When people are isolated or in desperate times, community can help tackle these difficult issues.